Hong Kong is 11,422 days, or 274,128 hours, away from July 1, 2047, when a Sino-British treaty related to the city’s handover expires and deals a new hand regarding the territory’s political future.
While Beijing and the SAR government have never bothered to elaborate on what lies ahead, hinting that it is premature as 2047 is still three decades down the line, locals — particularly the younger generation — have started to wonder how things will play out.
Here I’ll lay out two scenarios, admittedly somewhat fanciful.
Scenario 1: Reunification, in a good way
This can be the most ideal ending to some senior citizens who have been accused of pandering to an illusion of a “democratic reunification with China”.
A new top Communist Party leader, let’s say a Chinese version of Mikhail Gorbachev, will spearhead decisive political liberalization from the mid-2020s. Reforms will focus on separation between party and state powers, and the country will move on a democracy path similar to that seen in Taiwan.
The Chinese Communist Party’s autocracy is ended for good after it loses its ruling status to the opposition in a vital presidential election. And the new government, the first ever popularly-elected one in China’s history, proposes referendums for Hongkongers and Taiwanese to decide their future relations with the mainland.
Beijing also proposes a Chinese federation to be formed on the basis of free association among the three places, with flexible bilateral agreements. People in Xinjiang, Tibet and Inner Mongolia are also given a chance of self-determination.
Martin Lee Chu-ming, founding chairman of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, once noted that he believed party patriarch Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) had hoped that by 2047 China would become more like Hong Kong, rather than go down the path of the Soviet Union.
Witnessing heartening changes in China, an overwhelming majority of Hongkongers opt to remain in the Chinese federation as a fully autonomous territory in the split-or-stay referendum held before 2047, when the territory’s constitutional status is also determined alongside the poll.
The Chinese parliament and the Hong Kong legislature both pass a bill to replace Hong Kong’s Basic Law with a quasi-bilateral treaty based on those between commonwealth nations. And both sides send diplomatic missions, headed by the High Commissioner, to each other.
Taipei also strikes a similar deal with Beijing.
Scenario 2: Absorption in 2047, the endpoint of Hong Kong
This is the worst-case scenario.
Beijing announces the expiry of “one country, two systems” and the Basic Law is thrown into the dustbin.
The director of the liaison office becomes the first party secretary of Hong Kong and the Chief Executive is made the deputy party secretary cum mayor to lead the municipal government. Chief Secretary for Administration will be the deputy mayor.
The local political hierarchy is remolded on that of the mainland: the Legco is renamed the Hong Kong committee of the National People’s Congress. The judiciary will be entirely dismantled and put under the party secretary’s direct leadership and renamed “People’s Court”.
The Security Bureau will be reorganized into the municipal public security bureau and the Independent Commission Against Corruption replaced by the communist party’s commission for discipline inspection.
In the face of the ultimate convergence, forget democracy — and all the freedoms that we enjoy today.
But by then these changes will hardly make Hongkongers panic, as before 2047, the entire SAR government and statutory bodies would have been Beijing’s puppets and separation of powers and all the checks and balances will exist only on paper. People would have long got used to all the facades. If you still need some clue, just look at today’s Macau.
Beijing’s outright, well-thought-out scheme to mainlandize Hong Kong can be a lot easier to bear fruit if the city’s prominence diminishes and it becomes an economic backwater.
Hong Kong’s dropping share in comparison to China’s overall gross domestic product since 1997, and the city’s economic output getting outpaced by those of Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and other mainland competitors, have already been cited by some party mouthpieces as proof that the Hong Kong economy is in the decline, albeit slowly.
There exists the possibility that Beijing may retain Hong Kong’s SAR status after 2047, but don’t be fooled.
One has to just look at places such as Xinjiang, Tibet and Inner Mongolia, all are called “autonomous regions” but have no autonomy whatsoever. These “autonomous regions” are all led by party secretaries appointed by Beijing.
The drafting of Basic Law 2.0 – none of London’s business – will be done with the cosmetic participation of a “broadly representative” group of Hong Kong elites — Beijing puppets, in truth — through “democratic procedures”.
Through all this, the likelihood of fractious Hongkongers refusing to bow down to their fate can be higher than what Beijing might reckon.
When more strident tactics are deployed and pro-independence demonstrations sweep Hong Kong some time in the 2040s, Beijing can declare a state of emergency, a right enshrined in the Basic Law, and send troops to quell the protests with an iron fist.
Hong Kong independence will be unlikely given the Chinese garrison posted in the territory. The odds will be stacked against the people and the city.
Beijing may fear that any gloves-off approach in the run-up to 2047 will cause massive upheavals in the special administrative region. The only way to maintain stability would be rule of terror.
That said, the probability of Beijing and Hong Kong putting aside grudges and parting in peace for a happy ending may also exist.
But such process may mean a timeframe well beyond 2047.
Now, would you bet on any of the two scenarios?
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